Wednesday, February 15, 2012

She lost her parents, siblings

At the age of six, Madam Zaleha Sumun witnessed her birth parents being dragged out of their house to be killed by Japanese soldiers.

The incident happened at the end of February 1942, in the small town of Kota Tinggi, Johor, where she lived before coming to Singapore a year later. She was born into a Peranakan Chinese family and, after the tragedy, was adopted by Malay neighbours.
At that time, Japanese troops had just occupied Malaya and Singapore and had begun targeting the ethnic Chinese - their historical arch-enemy - in several massacres across Singapore and Johor.
She and her birth parents and five siblings were living among Malay and Chinese villagers in a Kota Tinggi kampung, which suffered a surprise attack by Japanese soldiers armed with bayonets.
Recalls Madam Zaleha, now 76, in Malay: 'Two or three of them barged into our house and dragged my parents away. Amid the chaos, some of our Malay neighbours managed to take us children away and saved us from the Japanese.'
Later, she heard that her parents had been taken to a nearby plantation and beheaded along with other Chinese villagers. She and her siblings, aged one to 16, were separated and adopted by different Malay families in an attempt to protect them.
During the occupation, the Japanese were known to be less brutal towards non-Chinese, although in Johor 'we did hear of Japanese soldiers raping Malay widows and young ladies to satisfy their lust', she says.
Her adoptive father was an ustaz (Muslim religious teacher) and she was brought up as a Muslim.
Her adoptive family left Kota Tinggi for Singapore in late 1943 because it was felt that the situation here was more stable than in the Peninsula, where there were frequent killings as anti-Japanese resistance forces slugged it out with the Japanese.
In Singapore, the family of five - Madam Zaleha, her adoptive parents and their two sons - settled in a Malay kampung in the Geylang Serai area. They eventually became Singaporeans.
Apart from the killing of her birth parents, her other indelible memory of the Japanese Occupation is having to queue once a week for the family's rice and tapioca rations. She remembers, at eight years old, being constantly hungry. 'The rations were never enough. We were so desperate that we ate the skin of sweet potatoes.' Among the food shortages was a lack of milk powder and neighbours with infants fed their babies rice water instead.
By 1944, there were also power shortages as the Japanese lost control of sea lanes to US submarines. Singapore households had to use candles at night as Japanese rules forbade the switching on of lights. These privations aside, life was quite peaceful and Japanese soldiers never came into the kampung.
After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, the war ended. Madam Zaleha went to school for the first time, enrolling at a Malay-medium school, Sekolah Kampong Glam, until Primary 6, when her parents could not afford to pay for her education.
At 16, she entered into an arranged marriage with her husband Othman, a carpenter, who died two years ago at age 80. They have 10 children, 18 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Asked if she still feels sad about the killing of her birth parents, she shakes her head. 'It was a very long time ago and my adoptive parents treated me well.' She has lost touch with all her birth siblings, apart from one sister.
Nonetheless, the wartime hardships are forever stamped in her mind. 'I always tell my children and grandchildren to finish their food and not to waste anything. I tell them to be prepared for rainy days. Now we may be much better off but you never know,' she says.